Why the ‘Blair Witch’ actors want their due

The Blair Witch Project is a cautionary tale in protecting your creative contributions.

When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it was a phenomenon.

A close-up of a scared woman’s flashlight-illuminated face.

Uniquely, its stars — Rei Hance (who then went by Heather Donahue), Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams — used their real names for character names and heavily improvised their dialogue. Marketing surrounding the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere suggested they’d really gone missing.

Despite the film’s meager budget of $35k-$60k (not including marketing or postproduction), that buzz drummed up $248m+ at the box office and a Blair Witch franchise including sequels, video games, an escape room attraction, and more.

You’d think the movie’s stars would be set for life and happy about Lionsgate and Blumhouse’s recent announcement that they’d relaunch the franchise with a “new vision.”

But that’s not what happened

Artisan Entertainment bought distribution rights to The Blair Witch Project for $1.1m. Lionsgate acquired the franchise in 2003.

Leonard wrote that each actor received $300k from a buyout for the first film and nothing else, having “signed contracts when we were kids, with no legal or union support.”

This weekend, the actors published a letter to Lionsgate requesting retroactive and future compensation for the 1999 film — equivalent to what the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA would require — plus:

  • Consultation on any future projects using their likeness.
  • The creation of a $60k grant for indie filmmakers.

Why it matters

As the actors pointed out, subsequent reboots have been critical and commercial disappointments — something that’s often true of franchises that lose original creators.

But more broadly, Hollywood saw two major strikes last year advocating for fair streaming residuals and AI protections. The actors are asking for what union representation would have provided, had they not been “starry-eyed” unknowns.

It also serves as a cautionary tale for any creator about the importance of protecting their IP, inventions, and contributions. Here are some more:

  • Daisuke Inoue invented the karaoke machine, but never patented it.
  • George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead infamously entered the public domain due to a titling error, meaning anyone can rip it off or distribute it sans royalties.
  • The inventor of the troll doll saw only a fraction of the toy’s $4.5B in sales.

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